Last week's proposals for an alternative to Common Entrance ("Common Entrance is past its sell-by date") go some way to address many of the problems with CE. However, the whole CE debate needs to be understood against the changing landscape of Prep School education in this country.
Common Entrance was created by the Headmaster's Conference in 1904 for a 13+ entry to traditional boys boarding schools, and its continued existence is perpetuated by the demands and needs of the large, national boarding schools. However the world of independent education has changed and these schools are increasingly a minority: many schools are local, co-ed, transfer at 11+, and increasing numbers of pupils are entering senior schools from the maintained sector.
The present financial situation means that we are heading for a time of significant change in the Prep School world and the direction of travel is clear. Prep Schools will continue to evolve, generally aligning their provision to that of the Senior Schools that they feed. The majority of Independent Sector provision is local, thus most Preps will be local and will feed day and weekly boarding schools in their area. A small but significant number of boarding prep schools will remain - these will run to 13 and feed the national boarding schools, as they have always done.
In this context Common Entrance no longer serves its original purpose as a school transfer examination. Indeed, most senior schools do not require Common Entrance - it is a little known fact that all but a couple of national boarding schools (e.g. Radley?) have a "non-CE route" for entry. Although the Independent Schools Examination Board over the past fifteen years have tried to bring the syllabuses in line with the demands of the National Curriculum, the exam remains irrelevant for a majority of Independent schools. Many schools have moved to a cocktail of Verbal Reasoning, Non-verbal reasoning, English and Maths.
Prep Schools understandably exaggerate the importance of CE both to pupils and parents in order to keep their Year 8 pupils' noses to the grindstone throughout their last year. But the reality is that very few of the boarding schools can afford to fail a CE candidate for two simple reasons. First, it destroys the mutual trust that must exist between a senior school and a Prep school. There is a symbiotic relationship between Prep and Senior Schools: Senior Schools need Preps to send them their pupils - Preps need Senior Schools to take their pupils. There is often an element of give and take in how this works on the ground. Senior Schools want the best pupils - but the rub is that sometimes Prep Schools will know that, if they send up their best students to a given school, they can rely on the good relationship to slip a weaker pupil "under the radar" and gain a place. Secondly, the financial costs are too high - every CE failure means a £24k reduction in income for the school because the "waiting list" have taken up places at other schools well before the results come out. A CE failure is a disaster for all concerned: the child, the parents, the Prep School and the Senior School. Only the very top schools, such as Eton, can even contemplate it.
What concerns me most about CE is what it does to the educational experience of many Prep pupils. Over the years I have interviewed many boys and girls who were bored rigid throughout Years 7 and 8 because they have been taught to the test by working their way through a rainforest of past CE papers. Given that GCSE examinations have crept down to Year 10, these young people have enough pressures ahead without respite. CE is a false summit. It is an additional, unnecessary pressure at the very age when young people need inspiring.
The CE debate reflects a crisis of confidence in Prep Schools. CE is the raison d'etre for many Prep Schools. Take it away and they will need to design their own curriculum - the comfort blanket will have gone - there will be inevitable resistance from traditionalists in the staff room who fear change. But what an opportunity the end of CE will bring!
But there is an elephant in the room here too: take away CE and it begs the question why stay on at Prep School until 13, why not transfer at 11+? Many prep schools are clinging onto CE because they fear the loss of their Year 7 and 8. Ultimately Prep Schools will retain their senior pupils if they can provide a stimulating and vibrant education and many do. However, Prep Schools do have an uphill struggle where they are in direct competition with well-resourced senior schools. Most 11-18 schools have better facilities, more specialist teachers and are able to offer a broader curriculum. This is particularly seen in Languages, where few Prep Schools offer a second Modern Language and in the creative and cultural areas, particularly in Design/Food Technology and in curriculum Drama.
It is likely that Common Entrance will survive in some form because the national boarding schools need it. However, for the vast majority of the sector the migration to entrance based on a more straight forward series of tests is inevitable. I hope the Prep School world will embrace the opportunities that this change will bring, and, freed from the shackles of CE, put together a curriculum that will inspire and enthuse the next generation of young people.